The other fight for abortion rights

At a time when the very legality of abortion is in serious peril, it may seem unnecessary to stretch pro-choice energies any further by fighting for the availability of a pill offering a non-surgical (medical) abortion alternative. RU-486. the French abortifacient pill, is not available to American women because abortion opponents have successfully intimidated and threatened U.S. legislators and bureaucrats.

Developed over two decades primarily by researchers at the French pharmaceutical company Roussel-Uclaf, RU-486 was officially approved by the French Ministry of Health in 1988. The corporate politics of the drug’s development are convoluted, and resistance to its abortifacient use came even from within the company. Roussel is owned in part by the French government; however, the majority shareholder is the Hoechst Corporation of (former) West Germany, the successor company to I.G. Farben, which produced lethal gas for Hitler’s death camps. Hoechst’s president, a practicing Catholic and an opponent of abortion, initially feared possible “death pill” accusations against RU-486. (Indeed, Roussel withdrew it from the market under pressure from the French religious right, then bowed to a government edict that allows stringently controlled use.) More practically, American opposition to the pill could hamper Hoechst’s U.S. sales of their medical products to Catholic hospitals—one third of all U.S. hospital beds.

Anti-abortion groups of all degrees of extremism are working to block the importation of RU-486 into this country and to prevent domestic testing, manufacture, and marketing. The National Rightto- Life Committee and the more extreme American Life League have each supported legislation that would affect new drug application and product liability restrictions. Their initial strident attitude, which peaked with a delegation sent to Europe to meet with pharmaceutical executives, has become a post-card campaign directed at legislators.

The American Life League has published a 70-page booklet, RU- 486: The Human Pesticide, valuable for the depth of its research but laughable (and alarming) for the hysteria of its language. Interestingly, the A.L.L. agues that RU-486 is simply another in a long line of inadequately tested, dangerous substances that have been foisted on women. The concerns are legitimate, and are shared by activists in the women’s health movement (who previously have brought attention to careless distribution of D.E.S., oral contraceptives and LU.D.’s). However, this fresh claim by anti-choice groups— concern for women’s health—clearly is disingenuous.

The American Jewish Congress’ March 1992 biennial convention endorsed U.S. research and testing of RU- 486, citing its “significant medical and public health gain in terms of safety, efficacy, ease of use, cost, and privacy.” However, cost and privacy remain ambiguous. The use of RU-486 as an abortifacient requires close medical supervision, tethering a woman to a provider for four visits. Can this be less expensive than (he average cost ($250) of early surgical abortion? Further, we are many years away from home abortions; the drug gives women an alternative to surgical abortion, but privatizing it does not mean that political opposition to abortion will abate.

Beyond abortion, RU-486 represents a new class of drugs with potential for treating progesterone-dependent breast cancer, endometriosis, and adrenal cortex disorder; it may also potentially provide a means of non-sex-hormone fertility control. These drugs are a genuine breakthrough.

Currently, there is an import alert on RU-486; it may not be brought into this country for any reason. But support for lifting the ban comes from a broad spectrum of women’s, religious, medical, and population control organizations. There are two federal bills pending that would lift the import alert: S-2268, sponsored by Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA) and HR-875, sponsored by Representative Ron Wyden (D-OR). Individuals or groups who would like to have their voices heard can contact: The Reproductive Health Technologies Project, 1601 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 801, Washington D.C.. 20009, or phone (202) 328-2200 for a packet of information on actions in support of RU-486.

Sharon Lieberman, a LILITH contributing editor. holds a graduate degree in health sciences. Site is a consultant and writer on women’ s health issues in Evanston, IL. Andrea Boroff Eagen is a science writer and book author in Brooklyn, NY. Both are longtime activists in the feminist women’ s health movement.